The Ultimate Betrayal
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine,
I cannot get out of my mind the photo
that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on December
30, alongside a story by Jeffrey Gettleman. It showed a young
man sitting on a chair facing a class of sixth graders in Blairsville,
Pennsylvania. Next to him was a woman. Not the teacher of the
class, but the young fellow's mother. She was there to help him
because he is blind.
That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four
years old, a sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a
dam along the Euphrates River on April 3, 2003, when a shell exploded
100 feet away and shrapnel tore into his face. When he came out
of a coma in an Army Medical Center five weeks later, he could
not see. Two weeks later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a
Bronze Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting at
his bedside, said: "Maybe God thought you had seen enough
The newspapers on December 30 reported
that 477 American GIs had died in the war. But what is not usually
reported is that for every death there are four or five men and
women seriously wounded.
The term "seriously wounded"
does not begin to convey the horror. Sergeant Feldbusch's mother,
Charlene Feldbusch, who, along with his father, virtually lived
at his bedside for two months, one day saw a young woman soldier
crawling past her in the corridor. He had no legs, and her three-year-old
son was trailing behind.
She started to cry. Later she told Gettleman,
"Do you know how many times I walked up and down those hallways
and saw those people without arms or legs and thought: Why couldn't
this be my son? Why his eyes?"
George Bush was eager to send young men
and women half a world away into the heart of another nation.
And even though they have fearsome weapons, they are still vulnerable
to guerrilla attacks that have left so many of them blinded and
crippled. Is this not the ultimate betrayal of our young by our
Their families very often understand this
before their sons and daughters do, and remonstrate with them
before they go off. Ruth Aitken did so with her son, an Army captain,
telling him it was a war for oil, while he insisted he was protecting
the country from terrorists. He was killed on April 4, 2003, in
a battle around Baghdad airport. "He was doing his job,"
his mother said. "But it makes me mad that this whole war
was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as something
One father, in Escondido, California,
Fernando Suarez del Solar, told reporters that his son, a lance
corporal in the Marines, had died for "Bush's oil."
Another father in Baltimore, whose son, Kendall WatersBey, a staff
sergeant in the Marine Corps, was killed, held up a photo of his
son for the news cameras, and said: "President Bush, you
took my only son away from me."
Of course, they and their families are
not the only ones betrayed. The Iraqi people, promised freedom
from tyranny, saw their country, already devastated by two wars
and twelve years of sanctions, attacked by the most powerful military
machine in history. The Pentagon proudly announced a campaign
of "shock and awe," which left 10,000 or more Iraqi
men, women, and children dead, and many thousands more maimed.
The list of betrayals is long. This government
has betrayed the hopes of the world for peace. After fifty million
died in the Second World War, the United Nations was set up, as
its charter promised, "to save succeeding generations from
the scourge of war."
The people of the United States have been
betrayed, because with the Cold War over and "the threat
of communism" no longer able to justify the stealing of trillions
of the public's tax dollars for the military budget, that theft
of the national wealth continues. It continues at the expense
of the sick, the children, the elderly, the homeless, the unemployed,
wiping out the expectations after the fall of the Soviet Union
that there would be a 'peace dividend" to bring prosperity
And yes, we come back to the ultimate
betrayal, the betrayal of the young, sent to war with grandiose
promises and lying words about freedom and democracy, about duty
and patriotism. We are not historically literate enough to remember
that these promises, those lies, started far back in the country's
Young men-boys, in fact-were enticed into
the Revolutionary Army of the Founding Fathers by the grand words
of the Declaration of Independence. But they found themselves
mistreated, in rags and without boots, while their officers lived
in luxury and merchants were making war profits. Thousands mutinied,
and some were executed by order of General Washington. When, after
the war, farmers in Western Massachusetts, many of them veterans,
rebelled against the foreclosures of their farms, they were put
down by armed force.
It is a long story, the betrayal of the
very ones sent to kill and die in wars. When soldiers realize
this, they rebel. Thousands deserted in the Mexican War, and in
the Civil War there was deep resentment that the rich could buy
their way out of service, and that financiers like J. P. Morgan
were profiting as the bodies piled up on the battlefields. The
black soldiers who joined the Union Army and were decisive in
the victory came home to poverty and racism.
The returning soldiers of World War I,
many of them crippled and shell-shocked, were hit hard, barely
a dozen years after the end of the war, by the Depression. Unemployed,
their families hungry, they descended on Washington-20,000 of
them, from every part of the country. They set up tents across
the Potomac from the capital and demanded that Congress pay the
bonuses it had promised. Instead, the army was called out, and
they were fired on, tear-gassed, dispersed.
Perhaps it was to wipe out that ugly memory,
or perhaps it was the glow accompanying the great victory over
fascism, but the veterans of World War II received a GI Bill of
Rights- free college education, low interest home mortgages, life
The Vietnam War veterans, on the other
hand, came home to find that the same government that had sent
them into an immoral and fruitless war, leaving so many of them
wounded in body and mind, now wanted to forget about them.
The United States had sprayed huge parts
of Vietnam with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, resulting
for the Vietnamese in hundreds of thousands of deaths, lingering
cancers, birth defects. American GIs were also exposed in great
numbers, and tens of thousands, pointing to sickness, to birth
defects in their children, asked the Veterans Administration for
help. But the government denied responsibility. However, a suit
against Dow Chemical and other manufacturers of the defoliant
was settled out of court for $180 million. The case was brought
by 15,000 veterans and their relatives.
As the government pours hundreds of billions
into war, it has no money to take care of the Vietnam veterans
who are homeless, who linger in VA hospitals, who suffer from
mental disorders, and who commit suicide in shocking numbers.
It is a bitter legacy.
The United States government was proud
that, although perhaps 100,000 Iraqis had died in the Gulf War
of 1991, there were only 48 American battle casualties. What it
has concealed from the public is that 206,000 veterans of that
war filed claims with the VA for injuries and illnesses. In the
years since that war, 8,300 veterans have died, and 160,000 claims
for disability have been recognized by the VA.
The betrayal of GIs and veterans continues
in the so-called war on terrorism. The promises that the U.S.
military would be greeted with flowers as liberators have disintegrated
as soldiers die almost every day in a deadly guerrilla warfare
that tells the GIs they are not wanted in Iraq. An article last
July in The Christian Science Monitor quotes an officer in the
3rd Infantry Division in Iraq as saying: "Make no mistake,
the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock
And those who come back alive, but blind
or without arms or legs, find that the Bush Administration is
cutting funds for veterans. Bush's State of the Union address,
while going through the usual motions of thanking those serving
in Iraq, continued his policy of ignoring the thousands who have
come back wounded, in a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular.
The quick Thanksgiving visit of Bush to
Iraq, much ballyhooed in the press, was seen differently by an
army nurse in Landstuhl, Germany, where casualties from the war
are treated. She sent out an e-mail: "My 'Bush Thanksgiving'
was a little different. I spent it at the hospital taking care
of a young West Point lieutenant wounded in Iraq.... When he pressed
his fists into his eyes and rocked his head back and forth he
looked like a little boy. They all do, all nineteen in the ward
that day, some missing limbs, eyes, or worse.... It's too bad
Bush didn't add us to his holiday agenda. The men said the same,
but you'll never read that in the paper."
As for Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded in the
war, his hometown of Blairsville, an old coal mining town of 3,600,
held a parade for him, and the mayor honored him. I thought of
the blinded, armless, legless soldier in Dalton Trumbo's novel
Johnny Got His Gun, who, lying on his hospital cot, unable to
speak or hear, remembers when his hometown gave him a send-off,
with speeches about fighting for liberty and democracy. He finally
learns how to communicate, by tapping Morse code letters with
his head, and asks the authorities to take him to schoolrooms
everywhere, to show the children what war is like. But they do
not respond. "In one terrible moment he saw the whole thing,"
Trumbo writes. "They wanted only to forget him."
In a sense, the novel was asking, and
now the returned veterans are asking, that we don't forget.
Howard Zinn, the author of "A Peoples
History of the United States," is a columnist
for The Progressive.
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